Tech Support Goes Social

Online communities such as Facebook and Twitter are becoming major support hubs for tech companies. Such top tech brands as AT&T, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft are assisting their customers via social media in addition to--and in concert with--traditional support channels such as online chat and phone support.

For consumers with a faulty Internet connection or a balky DVD drive, a quick question posted on a vendor's Facebook page, or perhaps a brief Twitter rant, may draw an immediate (and potentially helpful) response from a company determined to protect its online reputation.

The fact that online communities are extremely popular with Americans is not lost on tech companies. (About 83 percent of U.S. adults actively participate in social media, according to an October 2010 report by Forrester Research.) So the companies are going to where their customers are, setting up marketing and support pages on Facebook, monitoring Twitter feeds to pacify irate customers, and posting self-help videos on YouTube.

My own experience with social support has been positive. After waiting for weeks for AT&T to fix my DSL service, I decided to tweet my problem. I posted a few barbed comments on Twitter, including one that read: "I really, really, really have grown to hate AT&T DSL." Hours after that vitriolic tweet, an AT&T representative contacted me via Twitter, and arranged for a call from AT&T's support staff, which phoned the same day to schedule an on-site repair.

That's not to say, however, that every disgruntled consumer who gripes about a faulty product on Facebook or Twitter will suddenly receive superb service from a previously neglectful vendor. "I believe support through social media is still in the early, experimental stages," writes IDC software support analyst Elaina Stergiades via e-mail to PCWorld.

And while many tech firms today do assist social media users with simple requests--they might tweet a link to online clip art for a Microsoft Office presentation, for instance, or pass along a toll-free tech support number to an irate consumer with a busted laptop--they're likely to refer more-complex issues to a support line or service center.

Social PC Repair

PC manufacturing giants Dell and Hewlett-Packard have a strong presence on social media sites. Dell's support page on Facebook contains setup guides, technical manuals, drivers, and downloads, as well as a help request form. Its @DellCares support team on Twitter has attracted nearly 7400 followers and offers proactive help to customers.

Dell's Social Media Listening Command Center in Round Rock, Texas. Image: Dell
Dell may have the showiest social-support center in all of tech. Its Social Media Listening Command Center at Dell headquarters in Round Rock, Texas features dramatic lighting and a wall of flat-screen monitors--a futuristic effect not unlike a hip nightclub or a Hollywood movie set. Inside the Command Center, support staff track more than 25,000 Dell-related posts from major social sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs (via Google Alerts).

The Command Center's primary task is to monitor and respond to Dell customers online, a 24/7 mission that comprises customer support and brand protection. By soothing angry users and solving their tech issues promptly, Dell hopes to prevent negative news and misinformation from going viral across the Web. The results thus far are positive: Some two-thirds of Dell customers contacted by the company's social-media outreach program say that the experience was positive, according to the company.

"Customers were thrilled and elated that Dell was reaching out to them," says Manish Mehta, Dell’s vice president for social media and community. "It changed their perception of the company."

Mehta says his company sees social media conversations as an "early warning system for issues that arise around our products." Because social media sites are commonly used by tech-savvy “early adopters,” problems with Dell products are likely to show up there first, Mehta believes.

HP is also active on social media sites, but it tends to focus on redirecting visitors to HP-branded product and support sites, which receive 4 million customers a month. The company's Facebook page, though not as helpful as Dell's, has links to HP support forums. Facebook users can post questions, which HP automatically routes to its own sites. On Twitter, the company's "social media ambassadors," such as @HPsupport, respond to customer queries. HP has more than 100 support ambassadors who are company employees, and others are volunteers, the company says.

"We have some ambassadors who are heavily monitoring Twitter, because often times Twitter is the place where customers are doing a shout-out," says Lois Townsend, HP's manager of social Web support. "They're stomping their feet saying, 'Hey, I'm upset about something.'"

Townsend believes that social support is here to stay, and that it has become an important entry point into her company's traditional support programs. "Obviously, Twitter's 140-character limit doesn't allow for a lot of rich dialogue," she says. "So we try to use [Twitter] as a way to find customers and reach out to them. And then we escort them to the most appropriate place to get the best answer to their questions."

Risks of Being Social

This social approach doesn't always translate into good technical support, however, as HP customer Shona Anderson discovered earlier this year. An educator and author who lives two hours north of Toronto in Ontario, Anderson experienced a series of problems with her HP netbook, including a battery that wouldn't fit in the case and an erratic screen that sometimes became an unreadable "blur of pixels." HP fixed the battery problem; but when Anderson shipped her netbook to HP to fix the display, things went sour.

"They told me there was nothing wrong with it," but the screen problems persisted, she says. "At that point, I was a little frustrated." On March 21, Anderson went on Twitter and wrote: "HP sucks...my netbook is not working again." She then asked a Twitter-based HP support ambassador for assistance. "Their response two hours later was, 'Have you tried our 1-800 customer help number?' Well, that wasn't really what I was hoping for," she says.

The end result: A lost customer for HP. "I will never buy from them again. At this point, I'm so frustrated, I would love to tell them to take my netbook back," adds Anderson.

Anderson's dissatisfaction with HP suggests that a slick social media strategy won't compensate for defects in a company's support infrastructure. (In recent years, HP has repeatedly fared poorly in PCWorld's annual Reliability and Service survey.)

"User expectations for immediate response can be very high, and if a support provider doesn't have adequate staffing to ensure this (a very expensive proposition), it could risk angering frustrated customers," IDC's Stergiades writes.

Other tech companies take a more cautious approach to managing their social-site presence. Apple, which routinely earns high marks for support in our yearly Reliability and Service survey, keeps a relatively low profile on Facebook and Twitter, choosing instead to offer support primarily through such conventional channels as phone, e-mail, chat, online forums, and retail stores, Stergiades says. (Apple didn't respond to numerous interview requests for this article.)

Subscribe to the Power Tips Newsletter

Comments